A couple of students approached Lauren Sponseller, PhD ‘18, OTD, MSOR/L, MEd
, with a request: the virtual commencement was OK, but would it be possible to get together in person to receive their diplomas now that things were returning to normal with the pandemic?
The Occupational Therapy (OT) Class of 2021 had been thrown a lot of curveballs along the pandemic journey, adjusting to virtual learning and fieldwork, and some sort of face-to-face would allow students the opportunity to see each other, socialize and celebrate their accomplishments.
Knowing that OT grads usually receive their diplomas the first week in July, Dr. Sponseller, chair of the OT department at Salus and associate professor thought that sounded like a good idea.
So, the OT department held its first-ever OT Diploma Day July 14, 2021, at the Hafter Student Community Center on the Elkins Park, Pennsylvania campus. More than half the graduating Class of 2021 attended the event, which included the presentation of diplomas. That in and of itself proved to be yet another curveball for the class as the actual diplomas themselves didn’t get to the University on time and will be mailed at a later date.
Still, the festive atmosphere was a welcome sight for the graduates, OT faculty members and University officials.
“Our grad school experience got turned a little upside down by COVID and obviously we couldn’t have a graduation (in-person),” said Kiersten Nice, MSOT ‘21
. “But we were really excited that the OT department was able to put this together for us. We’re able to see everyone for one last time. It feels good to be back on campus.”
That was the overriding sentiment for many of the graduates.
“The virtual ceremony was really great to watch and something to have, but it’s really nice to be here in person and see everyone again,” said Olivia Gorski, MSOT ‘21
. “A lot of our classmates and professors we haven’t seen since March 2020. It’s great to see everyone in person and celebrate all together.”
Nice, Gorski and their classmates are currently studying for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam, which will allow them to get licensed and then pursue their careers.
“Today is another example of the culmination of the hard work that these students have done. We didn’t get a chance to celebrate too much in person,” said James Konopack, PhD
, dean of the University’s College of Health Sciences, Education and Rehabilitation (CHER). “But this is a student-initiated event and we’re very happy to support and participate in it. They brought it forward and they really wanted a chance to get their diplomas and to socialize with one another in a setting on campus. We’re glad to make that happen here.”
In her address to the students, Dr. Sponseller noted how the class adjusted to the different things thrown at it collectively, persevered and earned their degrees under the unique circumstances presented by the pandemic.
“Your class is one that we will remember because we’ve gone through all new things together. You all had fieldwork that offered unique experiences, being on the front lines, being virtual for school,” she said. She also mentioned how the faculty simultaneously went through it all with them and although they weren’t in person, the personal touch was more apparent than ever.
Salus president Michael H. Mittelman, OD ‘80, MPH, MBA, FAAO, FACHE
, and Barry Eckert, PhD, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs for the University, both expressed their admiration for, and pride in, the OT graduates.
“I want to pass along my congratulations not for just a job well done but for a job exceptionally well done,” said Dr. Mittelman. “Because you all trained under these conditions, you are better providers, better clinicians, your critical-thinking skills are far superior to what they would have been under normal circumstances. You’re all going to be so much better than those who went before you because of what you’ve lived through.”
Dr. Eckert shared with the class that throughout his years in higher education, he’s had oversight of OT programs at three different institutions, and that OT has always been one of his favorite departments.
“I don’t say that to be pandering, I really do mean it,” he said emphasizing the extraordinary nature of patient care and the group’s fieldwork experiences, both virtually and in-person. “You’ve learned to do amazing things to help your patients, your clients, move forward in their lives. I’ve always had admiration for this group. That’s my way of saying that I’m incredibly proud to have been here while you were here.”